The roots of Toshiba’s admission this week that it has serious doubts over its “ability to continue as a going concern” can be found near two small US towns.
It is the four reactors being built for nuclear power stations outside Waynesboro, in Georgia, and Jenkinsville, South Carolina, by the company’s US subsidiary Westinghouse that have left the Japanese corporation facing an annual loss of £7.37bn.
Construction work on the units has run hugely over budget and over schedule, casting a shadow over two of the biggest new nuclear power station projects in the US for years.
Events came to a head last month when Westinghouse was forced to file for bankruptcy protection to limit Toshiba’s losses.
Westinghouse’s problems in Waynesboro and Jenkinsville could provide a cautionary tale for the UK, which is also embarking on a nuclear power station-building programme.
Experts said the delays and cost problems were due to America’s lack of recent experience in building atomic power plants.
“I don’t think it is necessarily because of an inherent issue of US skills but rather the lack of practice,” said Richard Nephew, a professor at the Centre on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University. “There simply have not been as many new reactor builds in the US and this has reduced the overall pool of skilled labor, no question.”
The absence of a mass production supply chain, due to the small number of the Westinghouse-designed reactors being built, played a part too, he added. Regulatory issues had also delayed construction.
Toshiba’s losses stem from Westinghouse’s acquisition in 2015 of the nuclear construction business CB&I Stone & Webster, which it hoped would solve the delays on the two sites. That deal has now backfired spectacularly, pushing Westinghouse and its parent company to the brink of financial collapse.
The regulator for one of the projects, Plant Vogtle, in Georgia, has said Westinghouse’s bankruptcy means the project will require more “time and money”.
Meanwhile the utility company paying for the Virgil C Summer Nuclear Generating Station, near Jenkinsville, South Carolina, warned this week that abandonment of the project was one of the options it was now considering.
Nephew said: “This experience may push the US into a different model, perhaps focused on smaller modular reactors, or less complicated designs.”
REUTERS/Carlos BarriaThe US energy secretary, Rick Perry, signaled the Trump administration’s support for nuclear this week, issuing a statement at the G7 summit in which he said the US backed “advanced civil-nuclear technologies”. That suggested support for next-generation reactors rather than the sort being built by Westinghouse.
Richard Morningstar, chairman of the Global Energy Centre at the international affairs think tank Atlantic Council, said: “What is happening to Westinghouse and Toshiba only emphasizes the need to double down on research on new, safe, nuclear technologies, such as small modular reactors. If we do not do so in the US, leadership will be ceded to other countries.”
One such aspiring atomic leader is the UK, where the government wants to build a new generation of nuclear power stations to help satisfy the country’s power needs for decades to come.
But there are obvious parallels between the two countries on the issues of recent experience and supply chains. The UK has not completed a new nuclear power station since Sizewell B on the Suffolk coast started generating power in 1995.
EDF, the French state-owned company which has started pouring concrete at Hinkley Point in Somerset, where it plans to have two reactors operational by 2025, maintains it has had plenty of recent practice.
The EPR reactor design for Hinkley is the same as that for the reactors it is building in Finland, and at Flamanville, in France, though both of those are running late and over budget.
The other new nuclear projects proposed around the UK, all by foreign companies, look less certain and all are still years from construction starting in earnest.
Thomson ReutersToshiba said this week it would consider selling its shares in the consortium behind another plant planned at Moorside, in Cumbria, which would utilize three of the same AP1000 Westinghouse reactors being built for the two crisis-hit US plants.
The South Korean power company Kepco last month expressed an interest in buying into the project, and the business secretary , Greg Clark, went to South Korea last week for talks on collaboration on nuclear power.
However, any rescue by Seoul is far from certain. The two leading candidates in South Korea’s elections in May said this week that they favored rowing back on nuclear power and switching to renewable energy. Kepco would also face a regulatory delay of several years if it wanted to use its own technology at Moorside.
Unions in the UK said the uncertainty showed that the government should intervene more directly, by taking a stake in Moorside.
Justin Bowden, GMB national secretary, said: “The big moral of the story is what on earth we are doing as a country, leaving our fundamental energy requirements to foreign companies or foreign governments?”
While the government has argued that it has plans in place to keep the lights on if new nuclear projects do not materialize, others said the deepening crisis at Toshiba this week showed the need for ministers to consider a new energy policy.
“It’s time to come up with a new plan A,” said Paul Dorfman, of the Energy Institute, at University College London, who believes the Moorside project is dead. “It’s time for a viable strategy that talks about grid upgrades, solar, energy efficiency, and energy management.”
A report published on Thursday highlighted another alternative: a U-turn on the Conservative party’s manifesto commitment to block new onshore wind farms. Analysis for the trade body Scottish Renewables suggested wind turbines on land had become so cheap they could be built for little or no subsidy, compared to the lucrative contract awarded to EDF for Hinkley.
But the prospect of a rethink by the government on wind power looks about as likely as new nuclear power stations being built on time.